It takes a village to raise a child
Nobody flies solo in fostering. Volunteer numbers are rising and more independent ground-up movements are sprouting as the community bolsters support for foster parents and children alike.
BY TIONG LINSHAN
As a newly minted foster mother in 2016, Ms Tay Li Ping faced many challenges caring for her first foster son, John*, who was eight years old then. In her frustration and feelings of helplessness, she would often seek solace in a fellow foster mother.
“Am I doing more harm than good to this kid?”
“His school called me up again. How do I deal with this?”
“I’ve never felt such rage in my life. Is this normal?”
Even with eight years as a psychologist under her belt and three boys of her own, the current homemaker and part-time student at Christian seminary Trinity Theological College struggled with her anger — and the subsequent guilt — whenever John was defiant.
But the reply from her friend, who is part of Home for Good, a Christian fostering support group that Ms Tay also belongs to, always assured her that she was not alone.
“Don’t worry, it’s normal. I feel it also.”
Ms Tay, 41, said: “She normalised my experience. It to have someone say I’m not crazy, I’m not an evil person and what I’m going through is normal.”
This support, which she also received from the community of over 50 foster families at Home for Good, has played a big part in encouraging Ms Tay to press on in her fostering journey despite the challenges.
Home for Good is just one of the few ground-up community support groups that have sprung up since the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) push towards fostering in 2014.
These groups function as a lifeline amid a growing conviction of a wraparound approach — a term used in the fostering circle that refers to the need for entire communities to rally around vulnerable children and those who care for them.
As more foster parents band together in support of one another, more volunteers are helping to provide tuition, transport and activities to ease the burden on foster parents. Still others are opening up their homes to take in those who fall through the cracks.
Home for Good was started by four foster families in 2013 to provide a Christian-centric support network.
One of the founders, clinical psychologist Vivienne Ng, 53, said the group wishes to emphasise the church’s role in providing support for the foster parents in its midst.
The community can be an important source of strength for these foster parents, said Ms Ng, who started fostering in 2013.
“Some foster families need a village around them before they can survive a foster placement. And some birth parents need a village around them so that when the child returns home, the reunification process won't break down again.”
Home for Good has a 145-strong WhatsApp chat group comprising foster parents, their friends and interested couples. Foster parents use the platform to seek advice or ask others for help with resources or respite care. Respite care is when another pair of foster parents help to take care of a foster child for a short time.
The organisation has also nine smaller chat groups — with five to 15 foster parents in each group — to facilitate arranging get-togethers for those living in the same area.
Foster parent Ms Hope Kelly (right, in black), 48, shares her experience at a Home for Good tea session.
Beyond providing a wide network of foster parents, Home for Good also holds talks on effective foster parenting. The organisation invites guest speakers, who hail from England, Australia and even Ukraine, to share biblical perspectives and self-care tips to prevent burnout.
“Practical advice on how to take care of my body and my mind helps me on a day-to-day basis to ensure I’m well enough to care (for John),” said Ms Tay.
MORE HANDS ON DECK
As foster parents unite to encourage one another, volunteers are also rendering more practical support.
Some foster families need a village around them before they can survive a foster placement.
— Ms Vivienne Ng, 53, founder of Home for Good, on why community support is important for fostering.
These volunteers, who range from young adults to retirees, help out by befriending the foster children, ferrying them between MSF appointments and school or giving them free tuition.
MSF’s Enable-a-Family Volunteer Scheme, which manages and recruits these volunteers, saw a peak of about 130 volunteers for 2017 and 2018 — nearly double the 77 volunteers in 2014.
There has also been a similar uptick in volunteer numbers in at least two fostering agencies, which social workers attributed to the recent slew of recruitment efforts at fostering roadshows.
At Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura (PPIS) Oasis, Singapore’s third fostering agency, there was more than a fourfold increase from 14 volunteers in August 2017 to 79 in 2019, while The Salvation Army’s Gracehaven has recruited more than 60 volunteers since beginning its recruitment efforts last May.
Boys’ Town, which started recruiting volunteers for its fostering service in November 2015, did not respond with statistics on volunteer numbers by press time. Epworth Community Services (formerly MCYC Community Services Society), the first fostering agency appointed by MSF in September 2015, also declined to provide statistics on their volunteer numbers.
A PPIS Oasis volunteer (right), helping out at a fostering roadshow at Our Tampines Hub during Foster Care Week in 2018.
Support from volunteers, as Ms Tay has found, is especially crucial for foster parents like herself.
When she agreed to take in six-year-old Damien*, her second foster child, in February, it was on the condition that someone would help to transport him to school.
It was essential, she said, because she lives in the west and Damien’s childcare centre is in the north-east. Enrolling him in a childcare centre nearer to her place was also not an option; she did not want to make his transition into a new foster home tougher.
Volunteers not only ease her load but also improve her foster children’s wellbeing, Ms Tay added. A friend from church volunteers informally to drive her other foster son, John, to and from school every day, and the pair have since forged a bond.
“It’s really helpful for him to have another adult he can trust,” she said.
Madam Noorhayati Binte Mohamed Yusof, who has been a regular volunteer with PPIS Oasis since December 2017, started out by ferrying a pair of foster siblings from their foster home to meetings with their natural family.
Five months later in April, she started teaching Mathematics to a girl in Primary 4. Currently, Madam Noorhayati tutors two foster children — one in Primary 5 and one in Primary 3 — in English and Mathematics twice a week.
Though the 52-year-old housewife started volunteering as a means to pass the time, she now relishes the sense of satisfaction she gets from tutoring her assigned foster children, whom she noticed have become more diligent.
While she has to be sensitive and mindful of their emotions as she is not aware of their family background, she feels humbled to be able to connect with them, especially when they confide in her and share their woes about friends or school.
“I treat them as my own children. They deserve the love,” said the mother of three adult children.
Apart from helping to give foster parents a break, volunteers are crucial to address the manpower crunch in agencies, where foster care officers and social workers are often swamped with cases.
At PPIS Oasis, each social worker’s time is split between an average of more than 20 cases. This leaves little time for them to organise programmes or field trips for the foster children, said PPIS social worker Nur Aisyah Binte Mohamad Nizam, 25.
Volunteers can step in to plan such events, which allow foster children to make new friends and are also a form of respite for foster parents, said Ms Aisyah.
The regular interactions between volunteers and foster children also help social workers keep tabs on them.
“Volunteers are like a second pair of eyes and ears to look out for these children,” she said.
REKINDLING THE KAMPONG SPIRIT
While more people are rallying together in the official fostering scheme, there has also been a rise in ground-up initiatives like informal fostering, especially for youths who fall through the gaps of existing social services.
This seems to be aligned with the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre’s 2016 report on future trends in giving, which noted that Singapore is seeing a resurgence in its kampong spirit and a rise in ground-up volunteer movements.
The most prominent drivers of this informal fostering movement are Mr Kenneth Thong and his wife, Adeline, who first opened their home in 2007 to young people with nowhere to go.
At their rented terrace house in Seletar, the Thongs have taken in more than 40 people and currently live with six young adults, who are between 16 and 26.
The Thongs speak at various events with the hope of growing a network of community homes, The Last Resort, which take in disadvantaged youths who have nowhere to go.
Often too old to enter the foster care system and with no one else to turn to, these youths join the Thongs’ family, with the couple assuming the role of nurturing parents.
Most of those taking refuge with the couple also come from dysfunctional families.
The couple see this movement as a chance for these young people, who have experienced and seen many broken relationships, to understand what healthy and functional family interactions look like.
Children from complicated family backgrounds may learn negative ways of communication and interaction from their parents, which could lead them to repeat these unproductive habits in their future families, said Mr Thong, 47.
Mrs Thong, 39, added: “There is a lot of that takes place in this environment, and it gives us joy to know that we’re raising fathers and mothers for the next generation so that the cycle is broken.”
The couple left their jobs to commit to the cause full-time and now rely on resources shared by their church community. They were recently shortlisted for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2018, an award that recognises everyday heroes for their positive contributions to society.
Moving forward, they hope to build a network of “community homes” called The Last Resort, made out of people who step up to provide safe havens for young people in their midst.
While such an initiative may seem daunting to the average Singaporean, who may not have the time or resources to do the same, some are starting with smaller steps.
Inspired by a news article about the Thongs, Mr Adam Wong, 37, and his wife, Christine, 33, reached out to them and said they, too, wanted to open their home.
They had previously housed friends or family from their church, but never a stranger — until last September, when they opened up their doors to 20-year-old Jade*, whom they had heard about from the Thongs.
Jade, who had recently returned home after spending five years in a children’s home, had been thrown out of the house by her mother that night.
The couple, who have a two-year-old daughter, initially worried about how safe it was to invite a complete stranger into their home. Mrs Wong, a corporate services manager, said she was also concerned about the possibility of false accusations that could incriminate her husband.
Despite these worries, the Wongs took the leap of faith to take Jade in — a decision that Jade is grateful for. It was a reprieve from setting up camp at a playground, which she would do whenever she was kicked out of her house.
Besides not having to worry about food and shelter, even if only for one evening, Jade also found a listening ear.
Jade said: “It was good that I had someone to share my feelings with. I felt warm inside.”
The couple has since taken in another elderly man who needed a place to stay overnight while waiting for an available hospital bed.
Some others have chosen to work together to share the weighty commitment of supporting and caring for a vulnerable individual.
Ms Eunice Lin, a pastoral ministry staff, and five of her church friends — two of whom live in the block next to Ms Lin’s — are looking to take in a 20-year-old boy in need of a roof over his head this April.
The plan is for the boy, who is currently studying in a polytechnic, to stay in one of their homes while the others come alongside to support him financially and emotionally.
“The weight is too heavy for one couple or one person to do it on their own, but having friends who can do it together opens up the opportunities for us to think about how we live,” said Ms Lin, 34.
What would it look like if we rethought what culture told us as, ‘My space is personal and private and it's all mine’?
— Ms Eunice Lin, 34, a pastoral ministry staff, on having more people open their homes.
Even though some friends and family members were apprehensive about the idea and worried that it would cause the family a loss of privacy, Ms Lin said her group of friends is determined to fill this gap one person at a time.
She admitted that opening up their lives to a stranger like this is neither comfortable nor convenient, and that it is easy to shrug their shoulders and think that some people just have tougher luck than others.
“But there's also another way of looking at it and asking if this is best for him. If we stepped in, what could his life look like, and how do we give him an opportunity to be the young person that he needs to be?” she said.
She added: “What would it look like if we rethought what culture told us as, ‘My space is personal and private and it's all mine’?”
Mr Thong echoed that the community has the potential to do more for these youths.
“When we look at sharing, it doesn’t matter whether we’re rich or poor.
“No one has so much that we have no need to receive, right? And no one has so little that we can’t share.”
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.